20 April 2010

Birth of Middle-Earth in the Fields of France: Review of Tolkien and the Great War

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book was something quite different from what I expected. Going in I expected a book focused on J.R.R. Tolkien almost exclusively, with discussions of the hells of the Western Front in WWI and then a deeper discussion of the themes of loss or nature and industrialization play out in The Lord of the Rings. I was looking forward to that analysis of the 'coming of the machine age' that Peter Jackson had played up so beautifully in the movie version of The Two Towers.

Instead, Garth treats us to a view into a group of Victorian friends with discursions on the philological and poetic world/myth building that Tolkien was working on at the time. The group of friends are the four self-appointed members of the 'Tea Club and Barrovian Society" (shortened to TCBS for most purposes). The grand name concealed what was no more than a high-school clique. I'm reminded of my own high-school poseur-gang dubbed "the D-Men" although in practice, the TCBS was closer to Tufts University's Film Series club.

Each of the four members of the TCBS saw themselves and the group as having the potential to change the world and bring forth works of immortal quality. Garth asserts that the TCBS was purely middle-class, but there is a strong strain of upper-class Victorian exceptionalism in Tolkien's peers views of their world. After being split apart to attend Cambridge and Oxford, the four friends still exchanged letters, poems, writings, and music and periodically met in what were referred to as ‘Councils.’

It’s all very idyllic and the reader can’t quite say whether these young men were destined to be the next Algonquin Round Table or just a group of high-school alumni pen-pals. And then Tolkien’s generation of young academics was swept-up in the Great War. Three of the four TCBS members were young officers leading patrols and assaults in the Battle of the Somme, the fourth was on a battlecruiser in the Battle of Jutland. Only one of the three sent to France came back. Tolkien was infected with lice-borne “trench-fever” and spent second half of the war on home guard duty and medical convalescence.

Garth makes a good argument for the power of Tolkien’s experience in the Somme for shaping much of his mythic background for Middle-Earth, particularly the stories that went into his Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the conceptual links between Tolkien’s mythology and books of H. Rider Haggard.

In the long Postscript, Garth makes an effort to place the writings of Tolkien in a literary universe defined by post-Great War writing. He makes a case that Tolkien was writing about his wartime experience without falling into the two major camps of war-writing of the period. Tales of Middle-Earth are neither the ‘high diction’ propaganda created by imperial powers in the image of Haggard and [William Morris} to impress their people and drive in recruits nor the studied, modernist, or gritty writings of Robert Graves or Sigfried Sassoon. Instead, Tolkien sought to create a new style. In the process, he created a whole new genre of popular literature.

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09 April 2010

Jewsh Fighters of the Belorussian Forests: Review of Defiance

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Once again, I'm back with the Polish partisans in WWII. I swear, I have no ulterior motive, I've just been getting pulled back to these same people and lands for the past few years, I'm not sure why.

Then again, maybe this book doesn't count. It depends on who you ask if the land is eastern Poland or western Belorussian (now Belarus, in between part of the Soviet Union). It depends on who you ask what the nationality of the Bielskis was - Polish Jews, Belorussian Jews, Russian partisans, Soviet guerrillas, just Jews?

The story of Tuvia Bielski and his band is harrowing. What else can you expect of a place invaded three times in five years? A place where the choice of language for greeting a stranger could mean the difference between a free meal and a shoot-out? (Incidentally, those language options include Belorussian, Russian, German, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian).

Part of me was expecting more adventure tales of brave raids and crazy stunts, like a history of the SAS - but Tuvia and company didn't have the luxury of bravery. Instead, the Bielski brothers kept a sanctuary for any and all Jews with just enough violence to keep everyone fed and Soviet authorities off their backs.

The other part of me wanted a primer on building a Robin Hood citadel in the forest. In this I was also denied, but educated on how being mobile in a crisis and preserving people over things or places should be the true priority.

You'll have to excuse me now. I really should be checking the contents of the family's bug-out bags.

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